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No connectivity without electricity: how a lack of power keeps millions offline

Web Foundation · March 10, 2021

This piece was written by A4AI Asia and Pacific Regional Coordinator Anju Mangal and Senior Policy Specialist Nathalia Foditsch. It was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation

When we unlock our phone or boot up our laptop, most of us take for granted that we’ll be able to connect to the internet, rarely stopping to think about the complex networks of wires, servers and subsea cables that keep our bits and bytes flowing. But around the world, many lack a critical ingredient of internet infrastructure needed to connect: electricity.

Electricity is a precondition for connectivity

Roughly 940 million people — 13% of the global population — don’t have access to electricity and many more face regular disruptions. Without reliable power, devices can’t operate and internet services go down. When a cyclone hit Bangladesh last year, networks were disrupted when 60% of towers in the south of the country were cut off from power supplies.

In January, parts of Fiji were knocked offline by cyclone Ana which brought strong winds, heavy rain, and power outages. In December, northern parts of the country were hit by a category five cyclone, leaving urban centres on the island of Vanua Levu without electricity and damaging 58 mobile phone cell sites. Internet and mobile phone services only recently came back online on the island. Such blackouts are commonplace in Fiji and across the region.

During natural disasters and other emergency scenarios, the web is a lifeline, providing access to breaking news and other critical information, enabling instant communication and strengthening rapid early warning systems. But when extensive infrastructure repairs are needed and when equipment like battery packs and power generators are too expensive, as they are for many in low- and middle-income countries, too many people are forced to go without electricity and internet at a time they most need it.

Rural areas off the grid and offline

Rural areas face particularly high levels of energy poverty, making up the majority of the estimated 70% of households in the Pacific Island region that lack access to electricity. In Papua New Guinea where rugged terrain, extreme weather and political disputes contribute to low levels of electrification, only 13% of the population have reliable access to electricity, and most of those live in the urban centres connected to the grid. Improving electricity supply is a core objective of the country’s Development Strategic Plan and electrification projects particularly focused on rural areas aim to provide electricity to 70% of the country by 2030.

Limited power supplies present a huge challenge to internet access growth, particularly in low-income and rural communities. We need a dramatic acceleration of electricity provision as a precondition for reaching universal internet access. Slow progress in the Pacific region, mirrored across Asia and Africa, shows the scale of the challenge.

Investing in energy infrastructure 

The Alliance for Affordable Internet estimates that an additional USD428 billion is needed over the next ten years to connect everyone to a quality broadband connection. The bulk of this investment should be spent across South Asia, East Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific where a portion of these funds should be dedicated to electricity supply costs as well as the development and maintenance of core internet infrastructure.

A paper on “Broadband Connectivity in the Pacific Islands” from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) points to the need to increase power supplies and reduce electricity costs to meet expanding demands for broadband in the Pacific Islands where people face high energy costs. People living in the Solomon Islands have bills of up to USD 217 per month, some of the highest electricity costs in the world.

Demand for ICTs can drive electrification

The good news is that the mutual relationship between power and internet access can help to foster the increased supply of both. Growing demand for internet services can drive investment in electricity infrastructure and allow ICTs to flourish.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), mobile phones are so prevalent in certain countries that cell towers and associated infrastructure are facilitating greater access to energy services. Similarly, the World Economic Forum predicts that the demand for electricity to power connected devices and networks will increase as digitalization ramps up and we see the rollout of Internet of Things (IoT) technology.

Building more resilient networks

Such a shift requires a proactive effort to decentralize electricity systems, with distributed energy resources. This can allow greater power resilience in the face of natural disasters while also being more environmentally sustainable.

The Pacific region will continue to struggle against natural disasters that damage infrastructure and challenge communities. This reality will not change. What can and must change, is how we prioritise and build infrastructure, so that we support the expansion of resilient electricity and ICT networks.

Strengthening this crucial infrastructure requires good policy and regulatory frameworks, political will from local public leaders, and support from the private sector and civil society. This is why A4AI is planning to undertake research in this area and will continue to bring groups together to develop the policy, technology and infrastructure needed to ensure everyone has the power to connect to the internet.

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